Great theater isn't about big budgets.
It isn't about Broadway-level belters, opulent sets or triple-threats. It certainly isn't about $150 ticket prices. And it never has been.
What constitutes great theater, on Buffalo's diverse and remarkable scene, is a fierce commitment to getting it right, the smart deployment of talent and enough time to properly rehearse so that talent has a chance to shine.
All of these elements are in place in the Subversive Theatre Collective's marvelous production of "The Full Monty," a minor musical with major relevance to the lives of working-class Western New Yorkers.
The 2000 show was adapted from the hit 1997 British comedy about a group of out-of-work steel workers who hatch a plan to raise money by performing a novelty, one-night strip tease. Terrence McNally's clever book and David Yazbeck's cheeky but surprisingly smart and sensitive score and lyrics bring the story to the pre-"renaissance" Buffalo of the 1990s, a time when the hopes and dreams of Buffalo's working class felt even more fractured than they do today.
From the start, Susan Forbes' smart if somewhat slow-paced production earns the affection of the audience. In a union hall, we meet a series of men down on their luck after a recent plant closure. The classic musical "I want" song comes with the opening number "Scrap," in which the men vent their frustrations about being unemployed and longing to contribute to society.
"What I want? That's easy. I want to understand how I got to be loser and I used to be a man," they sing. "And I don't know where I'm going and I don't know why I'm here. All I know is that the future will include another beer."
After that, we're off and running. At the center of the story is 32-year-old Jerry Lukowski (Anthony Alocer), who's in debt "up to his balls" as he struggles to support his young son (the charming and very funny Alejandro Pérez). At his side is the affable, overweight former plant worker Dave Bukatinski (Jeffrey Coyle), who at one point sings a love song to his oversize stomach.
Together, they recruit a group of crestfallen, downtrodden dudes to participate in a long-shot fundraising scheme involving a one-night striptease. As the wayward members of this unlikely sextet (pun intended), Tim Goehrig, Thomas LaChiusa, Alfonzo Tyson and Connor Graham bring varying levels of skill that in the end meld well into the hodgepodge nature of this piece.
The show features a number of fine performances from those playing the put-upon wives, lovers and supporters of these men, especially from Jamie Nablo as the wife of middle-manager Harold Nichols (LaChiusa) and Pamela Rose Mangus as the grizzled accompanist Jeanette.
Alcocer is especially engaging as Lukowski, by far the most three-dimensional character in the piece, bringing to the role a perfectly balanced combination of slapstick humor and emotional sensitivity. No one here is a vocal powerhouse, but this is perfectly fine, especially because of the egalitarian setting and content of the piece. This isn't Sondheim, and able voices in some ways lend more authenticity to the piece than polished ones would.
Score-wise, the show includes some clankers and throwaways, but even these are often rescued by Yazbeck's consistently clever lyrics and the enthusiasm of this cast.
What's more, Nancy Hughes has done a fine job of animating Jerry Mitchell's original choreography in the small surroundings of the Manny Fried Playhouse. A simple set by Steve Harter features projections of lovely paintings of industrial Buffalo by Buffalo artist George Grace. Elaine Heckler's costumes are on point, down to the Armani g-strings.
Theatergoers should be aware that there is plenty of skin on display in this piece, and this should be taken into consideration when deciding whether to sit in the front row.
If the opening night response was any indication, this production is likely to go down as one of Subversive's finest.
3.5 stars (out of 4)
"The Full Monty" runs through May 12 in the Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow Ave. Tickets are $25 to $30. Call 462-5549 or visit subversivetheatre.org.